The Merchant of Venice – Act III – Explanation

The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare

Explanation – Act III

Act III, Scene 1

Salarino and Solanio get into a conversation. The prospect of Antonio facing an irreversible financial calamity cast a gloom on them. Salarino says he heard the news of one of Antonio’s cargo-laden ships running aground in Goldwin Sands in the English Channel. He was shaken by the turn of events.

Solanio dismissed this story as baseless speculation. He assumed that his honorable friend Antonio was too good and honest to deserve such a fate.

The duo hope that no more news of calamity would follow.

Around this time, Shylock, the Jew whom both the friends detest, enters the scene. He is still angry about his daughter eloping with a local Christian boy. Shylock seethes at the way his daughter whom he had brought up with such tender care deserted him so unceremoniously.

Salarino asks Shylock if he had ews of Antonio’s ships. Instantly, Shylock erupts into a venomous tirade against his debtor Antonio. He assumes Antonio’s default is imminent and he was almost certainly staring down a barrel.

Seeing the way Shylock bristled at the mention of Antonio’s name, Quite alarmed, Salarino asks if Shylock would insist on Antonio’s flesh if the latter indeed defaulted.

Shylock explodes with anger and revenge. He recalls how Antonio had caused business losses by giving interest-free loans and had humiliated in the Realto. He was a Jew, after all a human deserving the same dignity and respect which a Christian deserves. ‘Why did Antonio berated him so badly’, Shylock demanded to know. Jews were people of flesh and blood –the same material Christians were made up of. Jews experienced the same sense of pain and joy as Christians. So, why such discrimination?, the red-faced Shylock roared in disgust.

Just at that time, the servant enters to announce that Antonio was at his house and wanted to speak to the two friends, Solanio and Salarino.

Solarino seems to be on the look-out for Antonio too. Tubal comes in around this time. Solanio too mocks Tubal for his Jwish blood.

Solanio, Salarino, and Antonio’s servant exit.

Shylock asks Tubal if he has news about his daughter. The latter disappoints Shylock saying that he could get no information on hr whereabouts.

Shylock is heat-broken. His daughter has taken with her a costly diamond. The loss of this precious piece causes him immense grief. It robs salt on his mind’s wound. In desperation, he bemoans that he is enduring the curse all Jews have been collectively condemned to.

Tubal tries to assuage Shylock saying that misfortune befalls others too. He cites how Antonio is staring at very bad news at Genoa.

That instantly peps Shylock up. He is eager to know what has come on Antonio. Tubal says that one of Antonio’s vessels has suffered a shipwreck near Tripoli.

All feelings of despondency vanish from Shylock’s mind on hearing this. He is all charged up. His vengeful mind gets a shot.

Tubal tempers Shylock’s rejoicing by disclosing that his now disgraced daughter had spent eighty ducats in Genoa post her elopement. It was a princely sum for the miser Shylock. Again he relapses to his sullen mood.

Tubal has some news to cheer Shylock again. He says that a group of Antonio’s creditors have come to Venice to collect their dues from the now-distressed Antonio. The latter is staring at his ignominious bankruptcy.

Tubal discloses that Shylock’s daughter had pawned a costly stone-studded ring to a wealthy creditor of Antonio. The news shocked Shylock. It was a reckless act on the part of his daughter to give away his treasured possession like that, he reasoned. 

Shylock was gripped by a feeling of indignation and disapproval.

In the midst of this calamity, Shylock found instant relief in Tubal’s account of Antonio’s ship capsizing. The news lifted Shylock’s drooping spirits. Tubal added the news of Antanio’s ship capsizing was true, as a few sailors who had escaped the disaster had vouched for it.

The news dispelled Shylock’s grief instantly. He rejoiced at Antanio’s misfortune. The fact that his bête noire was inexorably sliding towards penury and humiliation brought him instant cheer. He asked Tubal to go and get a police officer who could take Antonio to custody.

Basanio, Portia, Gratiano, and Nerissa enter with all their attendants, including a singer.

Portia advised Bassanio to do his utmost to win the contest set up to choose her husband. She was enamoured of him, and wanted him to win the contest. She advised him not to hurry and make a mistake. Instead, he should pause for a day or two, and make a judicious, winning choice. So strong was her urge to have him that she even toyed with the idea of giving away the secret to the riddle, although it meant breaking the oath of not divulging it to anyone under any circumstances. But, she managed to rein in her wild impulse for such an unethical choice. Instead, Portia decided to prod Bassanio to exercise enough diligence to hit the right choice and win her in a fair way.

Quite unabashedly, Portia let Bassanio know that she had already succumbed to him, and couldn’t think of a life without him. But, she rued that she had no freedom to make her own choice about her life.

Portia’s doleful outpourings pierced Bassanio’s heart. He could wait no longer to go for the choice-making decision that would settle the duo’s destiny.

On being questioned by Portia, Bassanio reiterates his love for, and the fire of passion that is burning inside him for winning her.

Portia makes light of her lover’s commitment.

Bassanio skirts any frivolous comment from his lady love. He says that he can wait no more as the delay seems to consume him bit by bit.

Portia finally gives her nod to Bassanio’s request to let him try his luck. She asks Nerissa and other attendants to clear the area. She wants some music to be played to mark the solemnity of the occasion. In the event of Bassanio making the wrong choice and losing her for good, thye music would be assumed to be the Swansong for Bassanio. She would then cry so much that her tears would turn to a stream in which the Swan could swim. Portia used these metaphors to portray the angst and suspense that had gripped her mind at that time.

On the other hand, if Bassanio made the right selection, and won Portia’s hand, the music must reflect the joy and jubilation of ‘victory’, and be akin to the martial music played during the coronation of a king.

Prodded by Portia, Bassanio steps forward for the ‘ultimate’ gamble that could either ruin or enthrone him as her heart’s monarch.

He looks dignified, and petty much surefooted. Portia’s mood is expectant. She says, “Go, Hercules! If you survive, I’ll live. I’m more anxious watching you fight than you are in the fight itself.”

A musical interlude follows.

Bassanio is circumspect. He is in a contemplative mood. He thinks of many examples where deception leads to disaster. He thinks of a really good book bound by a frayed cover. He thinks of dishonest men lying before a judge hiding their perjury with sweet voices. Even pious men resort to falsehood to make their points. So, reasoned Bassanio, the world can be treacherously deceptive. Bassanio reflects on the beautiful beaches that hide danger under their belts. He thinks of the heavily made-up women and the jeer they face. Like this he made up his mind not to fall a prey to the look of things. The gold casket, thus went out of contention. Quite judiciously, he scorns the silver casket thinking silver to be too commonplace. He thinks the lead casket would be a good choice

Portia is gripped with uncontrolled torrent of emotion. She feels disconcerted and very edgy. She makes efforts t remain calm, so as not to distract Bassanio.

Finally, Bassanio makes his choice. He opens the lead box. Inside it there is an immaculate portrait of Portia. The painting looks breathtakingly beautiful, almost true to life. Bassanio is dumbstruck with the exquisite picture of Portia he gets to see. He reads..

“You who don’t judge by looks alone,

Have better luck, and make the right choice.

Since this prize is yours,

Be happy with it, and don’t look for a new one.

If you’re happy with what you’ve won

And accept this prize as your blissful destiny,

Then turn to where your lady is,

And claim her with a loving kiss.”

Most graciously he begs the woman of his dreams to declare that she finally belongs to him.

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